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Friday, May 05, 2006

THE LETTER OF THE UNWRITTEN LAW

In the part of Allston, Mass., where my reader M.B. lives, there are some longstanding-yet-unwritten community rules.

Rule No. 1 affects his entire neighborhood. Long-time residents mark their parking spots on the street with garbage cans, orange cones, old folding chairs, empty plastic milk crates or other objects.

The city permits residents to mark parking spaces in this manner for the first 48 hours after a snowstorm. Otherwise it's illegal -- which doesn't mean that it isn't done in M.B.'s area.

"The residents in this neighborhood do this year-round," he writes,"regardless of whether it's snowed or not."

Rule No. 2 is limited to the shared laundry facility in the apartment complex where M.B. lives. Whenever all washers or dryers are taken, those waiting for a machine place their baskets of laundry on top of the machine they're waiting for. The trouble is that often M.B. goes down to the laundry, sees a basket and then returns, 45 minutes later, to find that the cycle is finished but whoever marked the place still hasn't returned to use the machine.

"Is it ethical to cut in front of the person who hasn't started their laundry yet," M.B. asks, "since they've waited a long period of time before checking to see if a machine was available?"

Both rules are examples of social norms that have gained acceptance through the years in M.B.'s community. The challenge for new people, as they move into the neighborhood or the apartment complex, is to decide whether or not they feel bound by the same traditions.

There is no ethical obligation to observe such "rules," since you didn't agree to abide by them and doing so is not a stipulated condition of living in the area. As long as you make a point of ignoring the "rule" from the start and ignore it comprehensively -- that is, you not only park your car where other people have marked their spaces, but also don't mark a space of your own -- your behavior is ethical. Obviously, disregarding the rule only selectively, when convenient to you, is a different story.

The fact that there is no ethical obligation to obey a "rule" doesn't mean that there aren't practical reasons to do so, of course. Deciding to challenge the norms requires a willingness to accept the likely consequences of doing so to you, to your clothing or to your car. Not everybody feels strongly enough about every "rule" to take a stand on it.

M.B., for example, has defied the laundry-basket rule several times when it seemed clear to him that the owner of the place-keeping basket wasn't returning anytime soon.

"I had the laundry washed, dried and folded before the other person even came back to put their laundry in," he writes.

But he's never moved someone's parking-space marker, because the consequences are more than he wants to face.

"Since it's technically illegal, I feel that I should be able to move the garbage cans and not have to incur any sort of retaliation," he writes."The common payback is having your car scratched with a key."

The right thing, of course, would be for the city to enforce its laws banning such place markers, or for residents to discontinue the practice of illegally holding a space.

Short of these things occurring, however, M.B. and others residents are in a gray area where ethics and practicality collide, forcing them to decide whether they think that challenging the norm will have enough of along-term positive outcome to make it worth accepting the likely short-term negative consequences.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

M.B.'s dilemma in not his, but obviously that of the community where he lives, Allston, Massachusetts. I find it hard to believe that any community would allow residents, including longtime residents to mark parking spots in front of their residences, at any time. My suggestion to that town council is to rent those spaces to the residents, after the streets have had parking stalls painted throughout the community,for $ 600 per year. This would then be put towards the yearly snow removal fund, and prevent the neighborhoods streets, being littered with garbage. M. B.'s second dilemma, rule number 2, is one a problem of the apartment building managers, or the property management company, that manages that complex. Tenants should be told by the management through a posting in the laundry room, and by flyer, that there is "No saving of places to use either the washers or the dryers." Has our society reached the point that common courtesy has taken a back seat to common sense. Meanwhile, M.B. should be concerned about retaliation, considering the immaturity of many individuals.

Todd M. Brklacich

Anonymous said...

It's sad to say, Mr. Brklacich, but all around Allston -- where I live, along with M.B. -- many longtime, mostly older residents routinely claim the street in front of their homes with garbage cans and orange cones. As M.B. wrote to Mr. Seglin, this is considered acceptable (by both the community and the city government) for a few days after a big snowstorm, where the thought is that if you do all the work to dig your car out of four feet of snow, the space should be yours when you return (even if it means that the spot stays empty and not open to anyone else for hours and hours and hours). But it's definitely a drag on a sunny day in May to see the land claims all around the blocks. I'm not sure Mr. Seglin was sympathetic enough to the frustration faced by those of us who are driveway-less and who know that what people are doing is not fair and yet fear retaliation if we try to even the playing field for not just ourselves but for all the relative newcomers to the neighborthood.

This is part of a bigger problem of overbuilding in dense urban neighborhoods where the cars that come with residents of new apartments (as single family homes are converted into multi-unit apartment buildings) increasingly outnumber the spots for street parking.

I just grit my teeth and bear it, but it does roil me every day. I'm not sure that renting the spaces would solve the problem -- these are supposed to be public streets with first-come first-served preference for parking. I think the only solution is for someone to make me God so that I could impose My Will.

Good idea, tho, about petitioning the property mgt company about making sure the "no saving" rules are made clear.